When my two most trusted travel confidantes (shoutout Denison and Orth) both told me Croatia was among their favorite places in the world, I went from knowing nothing about Croatia to knowing nothing about Croatia EXCEPT that I had to go. So from London we headed to Zadar. Aside from Stansted being one of Dante’s levels of hell, we got out (eventually) and the 2.5 hour flight to Zadar wasn’t super bad. I had downloaded stuff on Netflix and the flight seemed to fly by (pun intended folks).
DAY 1: THE RENTAL CAR
We rented our car at Fleet, which is just outside the tiny Zadar terminal. Somehow we were the only ones at Fleet, while the rental company next to us (no idea which one) had literally at least 10 people in line. Finally, the last name Mallory didn’t curse us. It still took a bit to get out of there, and they gave us A BRAND NEW MERCEDES which I really didn’t want (first world problems, I know) because I prefer a beater car that nobody notices a scratch on as opposed to a 2018 Benz, but alas, I somehow persevered and managed to drive said Benz across the Croatian countryside. The people at Fleet were super cool and I ended up talking NBA with the guy for so long that he finally had to tell me to shut up because another person had showed up and had been waiting for me to stop blabbing. Good times.
Even though Google Maps said we’d be passing tolls, we just figured we’d wing it and figure it out as we went…which wasn’t a great idea. There were HEAPS of tolls, and without English instructions or people working the booths, we had no idea what was going on. We ended up stuck at one for probably at least 10 minutes until we decided we’d just take the ticket and drive on through, not knowing if we were supposed to pay or what. The way it works there, by the by, is you take the ticket and then at the NEXT toll booth you put in the previous ticket and pay for that portion, then get another ticket and use it at the next toll, etc. I don’t remember seeing that before, but whatever, it was cool. Everywhere we went took Visa too, so once again our Chase card saved us a bunch of fees and we didn’t have to have even one kuna of cash.
TO THE MOUNTAINS OF GOSPIĆ
The craziest part of this trip, or really of any trip I’ve ever been on, is the coincidence that happened. (Once, when Caitlin and I were in LA for work, Orth, from freakin BRISBANE AUSTRALIA somehow found out we were in LA and he and his bride were too so we met up as we were like 15 minutes apart…that’s pretty crazy but this story is even weirder). Our friend/travel buddy/partner in crime J-Heff Deni$$$on had told us he and his parents were going to Europe at a similar time as us. Originally, when we checked dates, we were just missing each other and that was that. But somehow we checked again, and the very day we would be in Croatia, they would too, and they would be doing the lakes there the next day. So were we. That’s insane. Like literally, any place in the world, and us and them were going to be in Croatia the same time and doing the same thing…COMPLETELY UNPLANNED! It was nuts figuring that out, so we booked a flat on Airbnb that had a hot tub. Let me say, hot tubbing in the Croatian woods under crazy stars is pretty rad and should certainly be done if possible by everyone everywhere ever.
So getting to Gospic was quite an adventure (mostly just having no idea of speed limits and toll roads. We stopped and bought some groceries at the only place we could find open at 10pm (a gas station) and although it took an extra hour to actually FIND the apartment, we finally had Jeff drive out and meet us. Gospić is a little town and we thought we’d found the place but actually had just sat out in front of some rural farm with our headlights on for 10 minutes waiting for Jeff to emerge…we were about a mile from the right place. So, sorry random Croatia family, I hope you didn’t feel like In Cold Blood was happening or anything. We were exhausted from the delay at Stansted and the long drive but man, that hot tub under the stars ruled. As I was in said tub with Jeff, his parents, and Caitlin, I couldn’t help but feel like my life was very strange, but in a good way.
The apartment itself was pretty rad. It has 2 houses, so Jeff and his folks stayed in the main house and Caitlin and I slept in the barn/loft/whatever. Our space had a cool stove where logs were burning through the night (but we didn’t smell like smoke, which was nice) and aside from the incredibly steep ladder which I almost fell off 12 times in the night, it was perfect. The Wifi was good, the landscape was incredible, and in the morning, not only did we get to see this adorable elderly Croatian woman herding a big dairy cow across the property, she ended up bringing us this massive homemade cheese as we were leaving (which I’m pretty sure she said was from the big cow she was with) and it was just a rad experience. It was nice to have a place that wasn’t the usual “small hotel room in gross part of big city” and was instead out in the middle of nowhere. It was only an hour from the lakes, so we would have been that direction anyways. So yes yes yes yes yes yes I would recommend this times 1,000, I would just ask for coordinates or something so you don’t get lost like we did. The morning we were checking out, I just chilled in the hammock and marveled that somehow an oaf like me was lounging in Croatia. Good times.
PLITVICE LAKES NATIONAL PARK
Basically the only thing we knew about Croatia is that it was sunny, close to Italy, had a bunch of NBA players who came from there (still hate you Toni Kukoc for winning the titles against my Jazz) and had Plitvice Lakes which sounded cool. So pretty much our only planned activity was the lakes, and HOLY X are they amazing. Yes, do them. Yes, they rule. Yes, they’re beautiful. Yes. Yes. Yes!
Per usual, I basically just knew we were heading to lakes and they were supposed to be pretty. Caitlin had done all the homework and I smiled and nodded. It was an hour drive from the flat to the lakes, and parking was NUTS. We ended up parking way far in the back, but in the end it didn’t matter much. I would say absolutely take some water and comfortable shoes and such because even though it’s all walkways, it’s a LOT of walking and we were beat by the end of the day. But alas I’m jumping ahead of myself.
Paying to get into the park is easy and as far as I know, it doesn’t need to be done in advance. We were able to use the Visa and it was about $35 total for Caitlin and I to get in. From the entrance, we walked to the first stop of the train/bus/whatever you call it and it drove us to the top of the trail. And that’s where the magic begins.
Two things to make clear: I have said it 8,000,000 times: I have run out of words for this blog. Beautiful doesn’t describe Iceland. Cool doesn’t describe Thailand. Awesome doesn’t describe seeing the David or Colisseum for the first time. So I don’t have the words to discuss how it felt and looked seeing the lakes for the first time from above. There’s like 5 HUGE waterfalls you can see from the top and the color of the water is literally unbelievable. Literally. Secondly, I am colorblind, so if I, of all people, am saying how insane the water color is, you should just believe it. And no, I won’t look at something you’re wearing and tell you what color it is, don’t even start with me.
I hate trying to think of new ways to describe cool stuff. Seeing the lakes rules, let’s just leave it at that. You catch different glimpses of the lakes and falls as you descend the trail, and it is just nuts, absolutely fake looking. So we were practically running down the trail to get to the water and see if it was really the color it looked to be. Spoiler: It was.
Side note: Lots of the trails and walkways are super narrow so you have to scoot to the side to let others pass. It’s actually amazing nobody fell in. And Jeff had been a year prior in August (I think) and said it was HORRIBLY crowded, like not able to move crowded and it made it hard to appreciate the lakes for him. For us, going in September was perfect. It had some people there, but nothing of note. We never had to stop if we didn’t want to. Side side note: Those fish are insane, man. They would jump so high out of the water to catch bread, bananas, whatever. Very cool.
THE SNAKE AT THE LAKE
The first thing we saw when we got to the first lake was something I thought was a myth created to scare schoolchildren: A water snake. Seriously, a water snake. It was so fascinating to watch it cruise around underwater, come to the shore for a quick breath, and take off again. This really has no point in the story except I found it fascinating and it made me reconsider my desire to jump into all the lakes. I think it’s illegal and comes with a fine, but the snake was a bigger deterrent than the fine. I’m not scared of snakes, but I AM scared of pain and poison so I decided not to take any chances.
WALKING AND SEEING AND STUFF
It’s not like you do anything too crazy at Plitvice Lakes. You basically walk about the wooden paths and look at pretty water and some waterfalls. But just being there is so perfect. The weather was great and we had so much fun just hanging with the Denisons. Jeff has been everywhere and his parents have been even more everywhere, so talking shop (meaning travel) and meandering through this place just ruled. If you need more excitement than just looking at stuff maybe Plitvice isn’t your kind of place, but it was great for me. Plus there’s a boat ride at the end!
BOAT CRUISE AND UPPER LAKES
At the end of the trail, you get on a boat that takes you across the lake (very slowly) to the trailhead where you can go back to your car or do the upper lakes. Because we were beat and had a several hour drive to Split ahead of us, we chose to skip the upper lakes. I’m sure people will tell us we missed THE BEST PART etc but whatever, we were super content and happy and so glad we’d hungout with friends at one of the most beautiful places on earth.
As I was (not super politely, but whatever) told by the parking attendant, “Parking is not here like in the States. We do it different in Croatia.” I only realized this as I tried to exit and THEN pay at the exit booth, like we do, instead of paying at a kiosk before getting in our car and leaving. So yeah, I held up traffic while Caitlin ran around like a headless chicken trying to find the kiosk that would allow Visa. Eventually we did and it was all good, but be sure to do that BEFORE trying to exit. And to all the people who were furious…sorry mates.
The drive to Split was long but not unbearable. We blasted good tunes and stopped to get food along the way. From the lakes to our flat was just under 3 hours.
Our flat in Split was very cool. The host Sinisa was an absolute stud and had played professional basketball in Croatia which was rad. The flat was an awesome basement apartment, super new and clean and even had a washing machine (no dryer, but the clothes dried in time). The place is called Beach House and although it’s not literally on the beach, it’s like 5 minutes away. Plus, 5 minutes the other direction are a bunch of restaurants and grocery stores, so the location was perfect. Also, it has a full kitchen, although we just used the fridge. As usual, doing groceries instead of eating out every meal saved us heaps.
We got there pretty late at night, too late for the beach so we ended up roaming and finding amazing food (more about that shortly). By the way, having a car in Split was an absolute waste. We parked on the curb and didn’t drive it for 2 full days. Literally and legitimately, it sat and we didn’t even open it, so we wasted money having it. The flat was so close to everything that we didn’t even want to drive, as parking would have been way more of a hassle than anything.
EAT AT MOVI OR REGRET IT FOREVER
Because it was too late for groceries and I was ravenous (a recurring theme in my life), we asked Sinisa for suggestions and he told us Movi was where the locals go. But, it sounded expensive and I wanted to waste money on touristy things so I immediately told Caitlin no. However, after trying to use a card at 3 greasy fast food-truck type joints, we realized Movi was our only option. And praise tron for that, because it changed my life.
Now, the best pizza I’ve ever had was right outside the Vatican. It was 4 cheese and I still dream and drool about it today. But Movi may have matched that, or at least come close. The atmosphere in Movi was crazy, very loud and lots of crazy Croatians being very loud. Which I loved. We didn’t see a single tourist in there, which I thought was a good sign. And for some reason, I was hesitant to get pizza for some reason…maybe because my pizza in Thailand should have been considered an act of war. But I digress, I ordered the 3 (or 4, who knows) cheese pizza and Caitlin got some nasty looking salmon and ricotta ravioli with pea sauce, which she absolutely worshipped and is raving about as I type this. The pizza changed my life. You don’t have to tip (I think, I hope) which is nice, and the meal was like $20 USD or something, so not horrible. But I dreamt about that pizza so we ended up going back the next night and it was just as good. Just go.
DAY 2: BEACHES AIN’T SPLIT… WAIT THEY ARE AND THEY’RE GREAT
We ended up walking to the beach as soon as we got up the next morning and it was super cool. Again, so glad we didn’t drive because the parking was almost non-existent. There were a LOT of people at the beach we were closest to, but it was fun to just hang at. I mean, beaches are beaches, and this wasn’t like breathtaking or anything, but it was pretty and a fun atmosphere. Having come from semi-chilly London, it was nice to soak up the sun and just relax. It was not nice having like 1,000 cigarettes in my face…seriously Euros, haven’t you gotten the message that smoking is not good? Whatever. After a few hours, I went back and had an amazing nap while Caitlin roamed the beach and watched all the good looking Croatians frolic in their banana hammocks.
SPLIT OLD CITY
As usual, I knew nothing about Split (sounds familiar by now, right?) and basically was cool with doing anything or nothing. I had no idea Split had an old part of the city, a walled part, and it reminded me a lot of Old Jerusalem. I had no idea, but it was part of an old palace, and now it’s got a whole heap of shops and apartments and stuff but still has that super old city feel. There’s a cool cathedral and again, it’s one of those cool vibe places. I know that sounds dumb, but it’s just fun to walk around and hang out. We got some good gelato and pastries and looked in a few shops, but for the most part we didn’t do much of note, which I loved. There’s an underground part with some cool touristy stuff (my bracelet and our ornament came from there for cheaper than we could find elsewhere), and there’s some cellars down there that you can pay to go in, but we didn’t so I can’t speak on it. We ended up just sitting on a bench right outside the old city and watching the sun go down and just enjoying everything. There’s a ton of dogs there too (not strays, dogs on leashes) which we loved. It was just a cool day and a great night. We also ended up at the port and booked our tickets for the island of Hvar for the next day. I think you can buy them day-of, but we wanted to be safe and sure that we would get on. Funny enough, we actually meant to go to Brac because of its cool beaches, but we ended up absolutely loving Hvar.
DAY 3: THE ISLAND OF HVAR
We ended up at the ferry a few minutes early the next morning and they were pretty strict about boarding at a certain time, so we chilled at the harbor which was cool. The ferry was nothing of note, a nice and smooth ride of about an hour to Hvar. As usual, I didn’t know what to expect so I was ready for anything and Hvar turned out to be an amazing surprise.
Hvar is as picturesque as it can possibly get. It looks like a postcard with its super pretty water, cool old streets and buildings, and amazing scenery with all the houses built along the hill. Plus, kinda like Edinburgh or Oslo, there’s a big fortress on top of the hill that you can see from all along the city. It’s just a cool scene and even if you just go for a few hours I would highly recommend it.
We ended up walking up the steep trail to the fortress first thing before it got too crazy hot, and even though we didn’t go in, the views are so worth the walk. Plus, you can stop all along the path and just look at the crazy cool old old old buildings (once again, Old Jerusalem feel) and Italian-feeling architecture. Actually, it felt as Italian as any place I’ve been in Italy, which I loved. Italy rules and Croatia was so much like it but just cheaper…which I also like.
On Hvar, we really didn’t do anything too crazy. As we walked around the island, we kept our eyes out for a cool place to relax and swim, and we ended up finding a tiny beach right off the main path. The water was cold but manageable, and the temperature outside was perfect. We were amazed at such calm water. Absolutely no waves at all, save for the occasional tiny blurp when a ferry would cruise by. It was a super relaxing afternoon, basically spent just lounging and digging the Croatian scene.
EAT AT KOGO WHILE ON HVAR
By this point, I was fully aware that Croatian pizza was life-changing, so I figured after our amazing pizzas at Movi in Split, I was playing with house money…so what the hey, I ordered another pizza whilst on Hvar…and if possible, it was even better (or at least as good) as what we had in Split. Kogo is just a cool outdoor restaurant right in the middle of the busy part of Hvar, which makes it fun. And the pizza was incredible. Like, I’m salivating right now. Maybe all pizza in Croatia is way good, maybe I just picked 2 good places. Who knows, but if you go to Hvar, absolutely eat at Kogo.
BACK TO SPLIT AND GOODBYE OLD CITY
After eating, we just meandered around the rest of Hvar. It would have been fun to rent bikes, but we were exhausted and completely content just to walk around aimlessly and sit on the beaches we passed. I think our entire time on Hvar was about 6 hours, and that was perfect. It gave us enough time to roam, explore, swim, relax, eat, and not have to rush to get back to the ferry. The ferry ride back to Split was once again uneventful (I’ve been on some sketchy, rough, sickness-inducing New Zealand ferries so uneventful is good) and we once again walked around old Split when we got back. We ended up going back to the beach in the pitch dark night which was fun, and essentially did the same thing we’d been doing all the time we were in Croatia: chillin, maxin, relaxin all cool and just digging the scene.
PS: Word to the wise: Shop at Spar, it’s by far the cheapest we found.
DAY 4: CAR RETURN ISN’T SO BAD AND HELLOOOOOO GERMANY
After nearly (and I mean really really nearly) missing flights in both Rome and Phuket, we’ve become a bit paranoid about being early to flights. And having lounge access at most airports doesn’t hurt, because if you’ve gotta waste time in an airport, at least do it with free food and drinks, right? So we were worried that we couldn’t return our rental car until 7am at the Split airport and then our flight for Munich was to leave at 8. In fact, we were so worried that Caitlin walked over to the airport while I waited to return the car. Weirdly enough, at 6:40am there was an employee ready (I thought) to receive the rental back, but she told me I had to wait until 7 or else pay an extra 45 Euros or something. So I sat in the parking lot and waited, but even after waiting until 7, the Split airport was so small that I got through security and up to Caitlin with nearly an hour to spare. Nothing exciting (except the fact that we had to pay 100 Euros to return the car to Split instead of Zadar, but alas, I knew that was coming) happened at the airport or on the quick flight to Munich, so the next thing that happened was us stepping onto the soil of our 29th country: Deutschland.
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Split is beautiful, nice littles streets and even park to walk around
I went everywhere in Croatia on a road trip and the top 2 places I’d recommend are Plitvice Lakes National Park and Hvar. I love beaches and the water, so those were absolutely my favorite places. On Hvar, you can take a little boat to small neighboring islands for day trips to see different beaches. Heaven.
Now, I’m not super into historical monuments, so for me, once I saw one “old town” I felt like I had seen them all. And every Croatian City has an “old town”. The best (most preserved/used) one is in Dubrovnik. Take a day to see it. I doubt you’ll see many tourists in these COVID times! If you love old towns, for sure see Split, Zadar, and Zagreb. If you don’t, spend all the time you can on the islands.
If you’re driving up Croatia you HAVE TO go through Bosnia. There is a tiny (15ish miles) piece of B&H coast that separates Croatia. It’s fun to stop in there and get another stamp on your passport!
One word of advice, if you go to Plitvice Lakes National Park you have to buy your ticket ahead of time. Like, book it now. Pick the earliest time you can go. HAVE FUN!
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